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U.S. to fly African troops to Central African Republic to ease violence

By Phil Stewart and David Alexander

WASHINGTON/DOHA (Reuters) - The U.S. military said on Monday that it will fly African forces into Central Africa Republic, responding to a request by France to bolster international efforts to halt the spread of violence between Christians and Muslims.

Two U.S. military C-17 aircraft will fly about 850 troops from Burundi into Central African Republic within the next 24 hours, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Firman, a Pentagon spokesman, said. It was unclear what U.S. support might follow, but Firman said consultations were ongoing.

Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog said the military was working to identify additional resources that could help address further requests for assistance.

"The United States is joining the international community in this effort because of our belief that immediate action is required to avert a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe," Woog said in a statement.

More than 400,000 people have been displaced since Seleka rebels - many of them Muslims from neighboring Chad and Sudan - seized power in March, unleashing a wave of rapes, massacres and looting on the majority Christian population.

Some 400 people have died since Thursday in the capital Bangui alone.

The U.N. Security Council on Thursday mandated France to do whatever necessary to protect Central African Republic's 4.6 million people and restore government authority while an African Union peacekeeping mission slowly deploys.

France has moved 1,600 troops to its former colony.

The forces from Burundi will help bolster the contingent from the African Union, due to be increased to 6,000 from about 3,500.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel authorized the flights after speaking to his French counterpart, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, and receiving a request for limited assistance, Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog said.

"In the near term, France has requested airlift support to enable African forces to deploy promptly to prevent the further spread of sectarian violence in the Central African Republic," Woog said, without ruling out further support.

The U.S. military extended similar airlift assistance for French forces heading to Mali earlier this year in a campaign against al Qaeda-linked extremists.

France's intervention in Central African Republic may prove simpler militarily than the one in Mali, where well-trained rebels were willing to die for their cause and had months to create arms caches and mountain hideouts before the French arrived.

Seleka, by contrast, is an ill-disciplined coalition of warlords whose poorly armed foreign fighters came for plunder and may disperse rather than fight, defense officials say.

(Additional reporting by David Alexander in Doha; writing by Phil Stewart; Editing by Eric Beech and Cynthia Osterman)

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